A statue of Columbia's developer, James Rouse, and his brother located near the town's waterfront.  Image by Scott Saghirian licensed under Creative Commons.

One part real estate project, one part social experiment, Columbia, Maryland is one of the most ambitious and successful planned communities ever built in the United States. Inspired by purposely planned and built “new towns” in postwar Britain, Columbia joined Reston, Virginia and Coral Springs, Florida as one of the most prominent communities conceived during the 1960s.

These comprehensively planned developments were larger in scale and scope than traditional real estate development projects, and included residential, commercial, and civic spaces advanced by a single developer. Columbia's goals of racial integration, environmental protection, and orderly economic development are accepted planning orthodoxy today. But at the time, in rural Maryland, they were revolutionary.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the Columbia's founding, so it’s a good time to reflect on both the project and its principal proponent, developer James Rouse.

Image by Google Maps.

Rouse envisioned Columbia as “The Next America”

When Rouse approached the Howard County Council in 1964, having quietly acquired almost a tenth of its land base, he had a simple yet bold proposal: “build a city to grow better people.” With I-95 about to open to the east and thousands of nearby federal jobs, the rural county was primed for suburban sprawl. Rather than haphazardly developing 14,000 acres between Baltimore and Washington, Rouse and his investors envisioned a hierarchy of compact, mixed-income suburban neighborhoods, each with its own walkable elementary school.

Our task is simply…to arrange the pieces in a constructive way with a decent respect for man and nature instead of improvising frantically and impulsively with each new thrust of growth as if it were a gigantic surprise beyond our capacity to predict or manage. - James Rouse (1967)

The plan called for racially and economically integrated neighborhoods in a part of the country that had only recently integrated its school system. The tightly packed cul-de-sacs would be nested within protected open spaces and connected by trails and transit to neighborhood serving “village centers”. Each village center would have a community and civic space and contain amenities like grocery stores, barber shops, and multi-denominational “interfaith centers.”

The town would be centered around a lakefront with shops and an enclosed shopping mall. At build-out, Columbia's population would eventually reach 100,000.

Columbia was not meant to be an architectural project, but rather a planning and social sciences endeavor. While Rouse was an early patron of modernist architect Frank Gehry, most of the town is comprised of non-descript single-family homes and low slung apartment buildings.

To succeed, Columbia had to adapt

The plan for was too ambitious to not have setbacks and false starts. The proposed transit system never materialized due to federal funding cuts during the 1970s. The extensive network of open spaces and paved trails led everywhere and nowhere at the same time, the paths too circuitous and housing, employment, and retail too far apart to provide a real transportation alternative for daily living. The religious denominations that used the interfaith centers struggled to plan around their different activities and some eventually built separate sanctuaries to worship in. The original plan did not include a cemetery or police station, but it turned out that Columbia needed both.

Perhaps most significantly, the economic realities of the 1980s meant changes to Rouse's original plan. Newer parts of Columbia are much wealthier than older areas, which is reflected in the quality and performance of area schools. Other developers purchased land and constructed strip malls and big box stores on the periphery of town. While these projects provided much-needed amenities and added to the county's tax base, they contributed to the decline of Columbia's village centers.

Columbia was a company town

Columbia is unincorporated, meaning it has no mayor, police force, or trash service. Instead, Howard County provides most services to residents and has planning and development oversight over the town. Columbia’s open space is managed by one of the largest homeowners association in the country. The town’s developable commercial land is owned almost entirely by a single company.

The ownership and regulatory structure meant that municipal governance in Columbia was relatively weak. The arrangement meant that the Rouse Company was insulated from the NIMBY tendencies of the first waves of new residents in Columbia because of the county’s desire to focus growth in the town.

Undoubtedly, the next 50 years will bring many changes to Columbia and continual relitigation of “Rouse's vision.” Density, traffic, affordable housing, and historic preservation are becoming an increasingly hot-button issue for this still relatively young community. The village centers are being repurposed and upgraded. The surface parking lots around Columbia Mall were recently the focus of a major and contentious mixed-use, redevelopment of Colombia Town Center.

Image by Howard County.

James Rouse was towering figure in planning

James Rouse popularized enclosed shopping malls, developed Columbia, and pioneered “festival marketplaces” like Baltimore's Harborplace and Boston's Faneuil Hall. Over the course of three decades, these projects shaped how America shopped, lived, and interacted with its declining urban areas. Columbia became a template not only for Maryland smart growth, but for American suburbia writ large. The project was an early precursor to master planned, new urbanist communities. These later iterations of master planned towns are smaller and more design-oriented than Columbia, but follow similar principles.

James Rouse defies labels or characterization. His transition from common mortgage banker, to community builder, and affordable housing advocate brought him notoriety and eventually the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For some, he was an enlightened and visionary community builder. To others, he was a savvy, profit-seeking real estate developer that hastened the exodus to the suburbs and commodified cities for wealthy suburbanites.

No matter your interpretation, James Rouse's impact on the region and influence on American urbanism is underappreciated and simply cannot be overstated. While Jane Jacobs espoused organic urbanism and discredited urban renewal, James Rouse packaged and sold America corporate suburbanism. Profitable and replicable. Columbia was his masterpiece and its success and diversity, his greatest and most enduring legacy.

Columbia’s iconic People Tree. Image by Fuzzy Gerdes licensed under Creative Commons.

David Daddio is fascinated by the politics and process of urban change. He is a planner and policy analyst working in the transportation sector and holds a masters in city and regional planning. David, his wife, and young son live in Takoma Park. All opinions are his own.